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How did you get into game programming? Was "Quarxon" your first game?
I started with programming after I saw a TRS-80 at Radio Shack when I was thirteen. I saved lawn mowing and paper delivery money to plop down $525 to buy one. It took a while. I wrote my first game, a baseball game, on the TRS-80 before I had bought it; I spent a lot of time at the store. I wrote many full games and aborted games before getting to "Quarxon." Writing games was the primary way I used the computer. "Quarxon" was the first I published, and I wrote that when I was seventeen.
Was "Quarxon" written specifically with the Atari Program Exchange in mind?
No. I wasn't very organized. I sent it to the Atari Program Exchange first, and they called back immediately and said they'd take it. I was pretty excited at the prospect of publishing one of my games, so I said yes.
Where did the concept for "Quarxon" come from?
Mostly random ideas! No defined process here. Usually my ideas started around some cool technical trick or some technical challenge that I wanted to achieve. "Quarxon" started because I thought the green color bands that make up each side of the screen would be cool to do on the Atari with display list interrupts. After that, I thought of a game that would fit around those green bands. That was a fun way to make games back then, and the market supported it.
How long did it take to write?
About six months. I was still in high school when I started it. I graduated and then worked on it full time for about two months to finish it. When I sent it to APX it needed 32K to run because the entire screen was bitmapped graphics. After talking with them, they indicated it would sell much better if it took 16K to run. I also didn't have a computer player [for solo play] then, and they said that would help a lot. I had to make a number of changes and additions to accommodate these comments.
Were you particularly pleased by any finer points of the game design or code?
Sure. I thought the computer player was going to be difficult to write, but it pleasantly turned out to be really easy. The tough part was making the computer player "dumb" so it wouldn't crush human opponents. That was fun. I was pleased at the how the screen was managed with pretty complex display list interrupts to change graphics modes on a display line basis. Creative use of this feature was the primary way I got the program under 16K.
What was your reaction when "Quarxon" was accepted by APX?
Elated! My first reaction was "That was easy! I'm going to create another!"
What was the inspiration for "Caterpiggle"?
I started with the idea that a snake could be eaten in its middle and turned into two snakes. I thought that could create interesting game play. I had also been interested in creating a maze game because I wanted to learn about them from a technical perspective. From there the rest was adding to that context. It was a pretty fast game to create; it took about two months.
I always thought "Caterpiggle" borrowed ideas from Broderbund's "Serpentine."
I have a friend who has told me the same thing, although I have never seen "Serpentine." I would like to though!
Did "Quarxon" and "Caterpiggle" sell well?
It's hard to judge that because I don't know how all games sold back then, so I can't say how well it sold relative to others. However, APX had a quarterly contest which gave awards to the best new games. "Quarxon" won first place in its quarter and "Caterpiggle" won second place. As I remember, "Caterpiggle" came out at the same time as "Caverns of Mars," which won first place. "Caverns of Mars" is a good game and, in my opinion, deserved first place. In any case, that recognition gave my games some degree of visibility, which I was thankful for. The income from these two games financed my life over the following year, which was significant for me, and was enough to motivate the creation of new games.
Did you work on any games that you never finished? Any ideas for games you never got to write?
Millions. Most of my games I never finished. I would think of something cool for a game, implement that one thing and some things around it, and the puzzle would be solved. I would end up looking for the next cool thing and so on. However, making the finished, polished games took a lot of focus and follow through and I was proud of that.
"Caterpiggle" was your second and last published Atari game. Was this because of the demise of APX or something else?
After "Caterpiggle" I started working on a new game that was really cool. I still have the listing for it. I worked on that for a while and then went to college for one year. Halfway through that year I started working at Microsoft on Windows 1.0 and have been at Microsoft ever since, but not working on games. However, games are my first love and something I plan on doing again in the future.
About the really cool game that you never finished: What sort of game was it?
It was a 2-D overhead-view scrolling game with a big map and various levels. The object of the game was to get "loot" before the computer did. The loot was stored in walled off rooms, which were visible with the top down view. To get to the loot, you had to collect a bomb and set it off next to one of the walls to blow it open. The computer did the same thing. There was a fixed set of bombs, so you had to get them before the computer did. You had some offensive weapons you could use against the computer: lasers, smart bombs, and mines. Lasers were what you'd expect. Smart bombs would detonate everything within a fairly wide space when they went off. They were timed; arm one and get out of the way. If the computer was following you, there was a good chance you'd get its player. Mines would blow whenever they were armed and something got close. Smart bombs and mines were of limited supply, but lasers were built-in. In each level were miscellaneous mechanisms, like opening doors and different terrains to navigate. The computer player could be another human player. Although I got a lot done, I didn't finish it.
Did you stop programming Atari computers after you started working at Microsoft?
Once I moved to Microsoft in early 1984, I started using a PC and have been on the PC ever since. I took a look at the Amiga specs while in college and was salivating at its hardware, but I didn't get into that because I was in school. I saw Microsoft as a big opportunity, so I've been working there ever since. I've worked on Windows 1.0, Windows 2.x, OS/2--back when Microsoft was involved with it--and Windows NT 3.1.
Do you ever entertain thoughts of writing a one-man game these days?
Occasionally, I look at the proliferation of really great games and get excited about working with a small group of great people to create game technology and specific games. I don't think the market really supports single man games unless it is a niche or sometimes a lucky hit, such as "Tetris."
How do you think "Quarxon" and "Caterpiggle" hold up today? Have you played them recently? Anything you would have done differently?
I've played them both today with an Atari 800 emulator that runs on the PC. I don't have any of my Atari hardware anymore. They don't hold up to today's games if you are comparing them on the merits of today's games. However, there are many old games that have a simple purity to them with great playability that are gems and will always be gems. The answer to the question of how does "Quarxon" and "Caterpiggle" compare to games that came out back then, I don't know. I was pretty happy with producing them, however. There are many games from back then that I love to play. What would I have done differently? I look at many of the big successes from that time period and know that I could have done them if I had that idea. I would of loved to have thought of "Choplifter," but wouldn't any game programmer?
Sometimes I wished I had been more patient and hadn't gone through APX. They did not handle their assets well, and my games were part of that. However, it gave me enough money to do the next thing on my list, so it didn't bother me too long.
What games, both classic and recent, have impressed you?
"Doom" sucked me in and impressed me with its playability. I also thought it was a good example of a game that used technology for a large part of its success. That is not the only reason it is successful though; its playability is really good. Many games have impressed me. "Choplifter" impressed me. "Star Raiders" really impressed me, enough to buy an Atari 800 in the first place. The list goes on. I enjoy looking at games and experiencing the gameplay and the entertainment they offer me, and I learn from them. I've done this since I got my first computer.